FILM / Carrying on at their convenience

Carry on Columbus (PG). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Gerald Thomas (UK)

City of Joy (12). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Roland Joffe (UK / Fr)

Gas Food Lodging (15). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Alison Anders (US)

Don't Move, Die and Rise Again (no cert). . . . .Vitaly Kanevski (Russia)

Lilith (18). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Robert Rossen (US)

By a sweet twist of fate, the film that Carry On Columbus unseats today in the West End is the Salkind Brothers' overblown Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. The 13th Carry On and the first for 14 years continues a long, glorious tradition of lampoon - Ridley Scott's 1492 now looms on the horizon, another fat, epic Aunt Sally. There are moments when it works well: whereas, for instance, the two other fictional Columbuses stumble on naive Indians, sullying their paradise, the spoof neatly upturns the cliche. Its tribesmen are street-wise, cigar-chomping New Yorkers: 'Not another mime troupe]' they sigh as Chris signs to them frantically, before bilking the newcomers out of all their possessions.

This could have been a classic Carry On. It takes the standard series formula of a boisterous crowd of people away from home and out of their element - what else, after all, is the voyage of the Santa Maria but a glorified charabanc outing? The film certainly looks the part, complete with neo-Fifties poster, old-fashioned, high-key lighting and outrageously under-furnished studio sets. And so it should: the director, Gerald Thomas, presided over decades of cut-price tomfoolery. While Scott and the Salkinds sailed to the West Indies for their no-expenses-spared rival versions, he decks out his paradise with what looks very much like a job lot of pot palms from Marks & Spencer. All this is very gratifying to the die-hard fan.

But, screened to a large-ish audience - and not just curmudgeonly film critics - earlier this week, most of Carry on Columbus raised nary a titter. What on earth went wrong? A large part of the blame goes to the third-rate script: the best Carry Ons revel in the inventiveness (or rather, the awful predictablity) of their puns - their verbal agility and the infinite lewdness of language. Here, there are a couple of memorable exchanges ('What makes you think he's up to it?' 'I've seen his testimonials]'), but most of the entendres are distressingly singular. One wonders briefly whether the vintage films were really so much superior, or whether they've become embalmed in nostalgia, but anyone who caught Up the Khyber - one of the best of the series - on the box last night will have no doubts.

The casting is a worry too. Sid James, Hattie Jacques and many of the well-loved familiars are dead, though several notable survivors - Barbara Windsor, Bernard Bresslaw - passed on the chance to appear here. Jim Dale is on board as Chris - on the cusp between the fresh-faced male leads of earlier films and incipient, Jamesian randy-old-goathood. But most of the crew are culled from the ranks of the younger, 'alternative' comics.

Throughout the series Sid was indelibly Sid, be he playing Henry VIII or Sidney Fiddler. Many of the new boys, as if anxious not to shine too brightly, submerge their off-screen personae - Rik Mayall is properly petulant as the Sultan of Turkey and Alexei Sayle an enjoyable wide boy, but Nigel Planer, Tony Slattery and Peter Richardson are barely recognisable. Even Julian Clary is a gentle, dreamy creature, much subdued from Sticky Moments and several registers below Kenneth Williams' and Charles Hawtrey's ravening queens.

The main trouble is that the film appears in isolation. The Carry Ons were always part of a dying, but still-present tradition of pop-prole culture - McGill postcards, music hall sauciness, end-of-the-pier shows and Blackpool rock - and, above all, the other Carry On films. But that world has changed beyond recognition. Columbus ought to split its trousers with cor-blimey coarseness but instead is an enervated museum piece; it doesn't even capitalise on the series' abiding ability to shock - by its rampant male piggery and political incorrectness. Could it be - dreadful thought] - that the Carry Ons are getting gentrified?

City of Joy is imbued with worthiness in spades: in it the writer- director Roland Joffe returns to his favourite theme, the clash of First and Third Worlds (it forms a loose trilogy with The Killing Fields and The Mission). A disillusioned doctor (Patrick Swayze) goes to India in search of inner serenity. As he steps into the cesspool, another newcomer arrives: Om Puri, a villager, and his family. Swayze surveys his navel and bathes in self-pity; Puri struggles bitterly for sheer survival.

Joffe is a confident, visual director - the crowded street scenes teem with life, Puri's rickshaw weaving madly through the traffic. The patrician English director suffered much-publicised attacks by Calcuttans, who felt he was maligning and patronising their city. There's some truth in that, but he also captures its energy and spirit. And, having cast a bankable romantic lead, he respects him and his audience enough not to lumber him with specious love interest.

But Swayze is still a problem, partly because his role is so underwritten, partly because he's an intensely physical actor: as he strolls around with a cigar and a swagger, it's hard to believe in his private torment. And the screenplay is terminal: lines like 'from the moment we're born, we're shipwrecked, struggling between hope and despair' come from the bottom of the cracker-barrel. In a no-nonsense comedy like Ghost, you accept (just about) these simplicities. In a serious, ambitious film, they're insulting.

More tales of poverty and endeavour: Gas Food Lodging, a likeable but unremarkable drama about a single mother trying to raise her two teenage daughters in a New Mexico trailer park. Don't Move, Die and Rise Again, in which a small boy barely survives in a desolate mining town in Central Asia, has lovely individual sequences but is marred by a jerky, incoherent narration. Best of the week is a revival from 1964, Lilith, the last film by Robert Rossen (who made The Hustler). Warren Beatty drifts into a job at a mental asylum and falls for Jean Seberg's seductive but promiscuous and disturbed schizophrenic. This is a wonderfully, even (despite the subject) exhilaratingly bold film, as subtle an exploration of sanity and sexuality as has ever been seen on screen.

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